Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Race to the Sky 2016: Part 1

    It's high time I get everyone updated on Race to the Sky. To remove any possible suspense I'll start by saying we did it! We finished...and with the finish completed our Iditarod qualifiers!
    As always, we look forward to staying with out host family who spoils us and - as you may have seen on our facebook page - we had a lovely loose-drop on top of the pass going into Helena. The dogs were so happy and ready for anything, I felt confident going into the race.

    The vet check did yield one surprise - apparently Razz had a chipped molar from our moose encounter the weekend after Eagle Cap. Fortunately it wasn't serious, but the vet's had me put him on med's just in case the stress of racing might cause any trouble. Poor guy! But I found out we weren't the only ones with moose trouble, so apparently those big beasts were especially ornery this year...I feel thankful we escaped the encounter with no serious injuries - not even a broken sled.

    The warm, sunny weather made a sled dog race seem miles away and tales (and photos) of bare ground at the start had me worried. Fortunately, as usually happens, the photos made it look worse than it was. Still, I figured I'd play it safe and have my handler (mom) ride the first couple miles with me. Mistake! I lost her just up the hill - the tussocks of grass made it hard to stay on.
    I had trouble at one of the turns, but eventually we got moving in the right direction (thanks to the volunteer's help since snowhooks wouldn't hold)...everything being a bit more difficult than usual because Bella decided to come into heat for the race.

    It didn't seem extremely warm out on the loop by Lincoln and I was very happy with our time - though I might've put more weight on the drag if I realized just how fast we were moving! Going up Huckleberry the dogs just flew. But to my dismay, when I stopped to snack, I realized I'd forgotten frozen meat snacks and only had kibble. They gobbled it up, anyway, and off we went again - thankful I'd bootied because some of the trail was a bit crusty now.

    Coming down Huckleberry pass always seems really long and I could see so many lights in front of me - both 8-dogger's and 12-dog teams.

    My handler team - mom, sister and grandma - were ready for me to get me parked. The punchy snow makes it hard to slow the team and harder for handler's to try to lead them. But we got parked. It's hard to come into a checkpoint because sometimes you feel like everyone is crowding in on you - there's almost too much commotion; especially after being used to your silent campsite or Eagle Cap where you're on your own. The dogs didn't eat well, for them, and seemed hot. Seeing my time, I was afraid I went too fast and decided I would take my 4 hour at Whitetail (which I'd tentatively planned to do). The dogs did calm down once I left and ate their saved food - even Eagle and Owl acted like the pro's they are, although it was their first race experience!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Race to the Sky 2016: Part 2

    We left Whitetail right on time, in a flurry of snow. While glad for the snow, because it helped on the sparsely covered roads, I couldn't seem to keep it out of my face - no matter which direction we went. Even in the hills, it kept coming down!
    To make matters worse, the melting snow and wind had knocked down some markers so at one point we went straight instead of turning left...fortunately I happened to look over and realized my mistake. However, the dogs decided they wanted to go back to Whitetail and then ended up in a person's driveway - I guess since they had their light on, the dogs thought it would be a good place to visit.
    I felt bad to be shouting commands at midnight by someone's house, but there was no way I could get off the sled - the ice was slick and there was no way to set a hook. Someone turned off the light and the dogs seemed to take that as a cue that they weren't welcome there! Needless to say, I was thrilled to get off the plowed road onto the snowmobile trail again.

    It seems to alternate years as to whether I have trouble keeping awake during the last 20 miles into Seeley...this year was one of those years! I was soooo looking forward to a nap in Seeley, where I intended to take another 4 hours - as my plan was to run 6 hours (or so) and rest 4 hours as a schedule.

    I don't really remember much about Seeley, except that we parked on a tight corner and the dogs seemed to eat better. I did the dog care - feeding, foot ointment and wrist wraps, then stumbled inside for food and sleep. I definitely feel for handlers at Race to the Sky - because they have to sit out with the dogs constantly.

    Coming out to hook up I noticed Summer's wrist was sore. Although I considered running her out of it, I knew she'd been kicked by the moose and I'd had to lay her off for the same wrist earlier. So, much to my chagrin, I dropped her. Funny thing is that I'd been thinking to myself earlier in the season how great it was that it didn't seem to matter which dogs I ran - the team seemed so consistent, "no one seemed to be indispensable." Careful what you think! I did not really want to drop one of my best dogs!

    But it couldn't be helped and I left for Owl Creek with 11 dogs on the line.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How It All Started - Part 6: The 2008 Season

    The last installment of "How It All Started" ended at the 2007 season - my first season of racing my own dogs so we'll pick up where we left off. Of course, summer time is a "down time" for mushers so I kept in touch with those I'd met, asking all the questions I could think of and studying all the Seppala Siberian information I could get my hands on...pedigrees, documents, history - I loved it all! Of course, I did learn a lot about Alaskan Huskies too, but at this point I never dreamed of trading my "pretty Siberian's" for high-strung, crazy-fast Alaskans (don't laugh too hard, but I would never have believed you if you told me I'd be running a team like I have now...made up of Alaskans).

    One thing I have to say about writing "how it all started" posts: I'm surprised how much I've apparently forgotten! The years and seasons of mushing almost seem a blur of excitement at first, but sitting and writing it all down makes me remember so many good times...I will have to dig for pictures because now I remember moments that were captured in pictures, but can't remember the year and wonder where the photos ended up - so there may be some backtracking in future posts as I come across more "history." I hope you enjoy all this as much as I enjoy writing it for you!

    But back to where we left off...

    My mom thought she would get enough dogs to run her own team as well, and it taught us a lesson about purchasing good dogs. You get what you pay for and just because a dog has good bloodlines, doesn't mean it can perform. However, at the Seppala Club "fun race" in the spring of 2007 I happened to obtain one of the best Seppala's I would run - a dog named Nanook - and out of my mom's purchases we got a female named Vixen. These two dogs would join Wonder, Quest and Chase as some of the core dogs of my team for the years I ran Seppalas. You may recall Nanook being mentioned back in the posts when I got Saxon - he is related and part of the reason I've been thrilled to have him on my team (and doing so well!)
    Training was different this fall, because my brother and I purchased a 4-wheeler and we were training 10-12 dogs. This was where I first saw the difference between a good sled dog and those who run, but don't work hard.
    Thanks to CKC's generous sponsorship, again, I was able to do a few extra races. We headed down to Frog Lake, Oregon and competed in the 6 dog class with a team consisting of the above mentioned dogs and Kowtoo - a dog from Doug who had been hit by a truck the year before and whom I had obtained to rehab. He was a big dog who would always have an "off" gait, but he loved to run and worked hard. He loved to sit and watch folks!
    We ran Conconully again, placing 3rd this time but replacing Nanook with Nala - a shy female who didn't look like much but always surprised you!

Coming into the finish - Vixen and Chase in lead, Nala is in swing and Kowtoo in Wheel.

The CKC sponsored mushers - Steve, Doug, Amy, Me and Vicky

WonderWoman and Chase
Nala and Vixen 
Kowtoo and Quest 

Of course Priest Lake couldn't be missed and I think it rained...a common occurrence in early February in my neck of the woods.

    Then came the wonderful first litter in February 2008. Moonbeam had three females - Athena, Atalanta and Aravis. These girls were out of Nanook and if you've followed my blog for a while you probably recall that I had the pleasant task of watching two of Athena's litters over the summer for my friend Hannah. These dogs still impress me and I love how the Seppala / Alaskan cross is working - with Athena's daughter Ethel having had a litter not long ago, I hope to persuade Hannah to let me have a couple!
    I had a blast with these girls, although I only kept Athena, and gained confidence by raising Athena and going through the puppy stages with her - including harness-breaking.

Athena in 2009

Harness breaking the "A" litter: 
Vixen and WonderWoman
Athena and Atalanta
Quest and Ruby

Monday, March 7, 2016

Eagle Cap Extreme 2016: Part 4

    So, like last year, we let Mark go out just a little bit too far ahead of us! We seem to have pretty evenly matched teams and move about the same speed...but I keep taking extra rest and he gets ahead of me...

    The dogs left Ollokot well, but I had to drop Frost with a sore shoulder. It was one of those times when I felt sure he would warm out of it, but with 65 miles to run I didn't want to risk bagging him...especially if the trail were as soft as the original run in to Ollokot.
    With Rowdy and Sweetwater in lead, the eight remaining dogs charged out of the checkpoint and made good time up the hill out of the river valley. I was impressed when all but one ate the snack and they had very little balking at the steep mountain loop which came 4 hours into the run. Coming down the mountain and over the bridge where we always crash (not this year - thanks to the more flexible Gatt sled from Kirk!), Jingle started barking and barking as we ran. Later, I really wanted him to shut up because I thought I heard wolves - but of course I couldn't tell with his noise!

    I thought the dogs would balk at doing a 9 mile look we had not run on the way out, but they loved it! In the wind and snow they really moved out and we caught sight of Mark a couple times. Off the loop, they knew where they were and they kept their momentum, but the last couple miles I could tell Saxon began to wonder if it would ever end...we stopped a couple times and he perked up.

    Coming down into the finish, seeing the lights below you, is almost sad - because you want to stay out there forever. You're suddenly not tired and the dogs even seem to say, "Yeah, we're almost there but we could go lots further." But then you get to the finish and to the truck and the dogs eat and are so happy - and I'm happy because I have a handler there to take us to the cabin for a nap!

    We finished 6th and I think the highlight of the race was getting three rookies - Jingle, Saxon and, most notably, Falcon, through the race. As for the four dropped dogs, they showed no signs of injury now and were happy and eating...another highlight. This race I had the pleasure of running a team who devoured their food - a blend of First Mate High Performance Puppy food and a meat mix from Scheffelmaier Meats. Even after the race, the dogs ate and drank well  - recovering to play loose in the parking lot where we went to loose drop them with Carlleen.

   And that was our Eagle Cap Extreme adventure of 2016!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Eagle Cap Extreme 2016: Part 3

    Something I also pondered during the 3rd leg is why the dogs come off a 6 hour rest so rough? It's not that they don't want to leave (on the contrary, they left great!) but I've noticed a great difference in how the dogs look after we get a ways into the run after a 6 hour break. Perhaps it's mental...maybe I'm just tired...but it's as if they "shut down" too much.
    But I'm also tired and the 3rd leg of Eagle Cap is always in the heat of the day, so perhaps that's part of it.
    Either way, we lost a lot of booties again and Rowdy and Saxon did what they could in lead. It was a short run - 35 miles - but took forever! The terrain was steep but the view was impressive.

    The dogs ate their snack pretty well, but we were all hot coming in to the last checkpoint. I was pretty discouraged - knowing our longest, toughest run lay ahead...and I'd intended to to rest 1 and 1/2 hours or less. Needless to say, that plan changed.

    Looking back, I should've taken a slightly longer rest on the first checkpoint and definitely a shorter rest on the last leg...but I figured a good rest would help Falcon, Saxon and Jingle (the three rookies) finish. And, they ate well, so I wanted to let the meal settle a bit.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Eagle Cap Extreme 2016: Part 2

   No one had left except Aaron and Brett by the time I went out to hook up. I settled on giving an extra 15 minutes but figured I should stick to plan - they trail had been tough, but we were going onto a nicely groomed trail and I wanted to make it through to my 6 hour rest in order to leave enough time to start the 3rd leg in the morning before the heat of the day.
    I put another new leader up - Jingle - with Sweetwater for this night run. The dogs were pumped and left well. They seemed to move very well and, again, ate their snack. The cool part about this run is that the moon was so bright I had my headlamp on low most of the time and, of course, with such a bright moon the view was enchanting!
    I wasn't really tired, but I came across an open space and could've sworn I saw a moose step out of the trees and into the trail...then off into the woods. I scanned for tracks when we came to the spot and saw nothing. I believe it was the shadows of the trees blowing in the wind and got a laugh out of that.
    On the way down, after all the teams and multiple snowmobiles had gone through, I came to the same spot and saw something leap into the trail. Two eyes were looking at us...it was a cougar, crouched in the trail! I wondered what I should do - should I stop? After all, they hunt cougars with dogs so it should be scared of us, right? But it didn't move as we approached! So I started yelling at it like you'd yell at a stray dog. And it leapt off the trail and into the woods again. What an amazing experience!

    Coming down into Ollokot I was thrilled with the team...all twelve looked solid and the cooler night temperatures were nice. We had trouble getting to our camping spot - the dogs were very interested in Mark's campsite and food. However, once in our spot the dogs ate well and I went to sleep...

    The dogs had come in so well, with tight tugs and no signs of issues, that I did not expect to find anything when I took them for a stretch-out walk during the 6 hour rest. Unfortunately, even with wrist wraps, there was not enough time to fix Odysseus, Achilles and Bea's wrists. Dropping them was frustrating, not only because I really wanted them to finish but because I'd been puzzling all year over why some dogs never get injured and others keep getting small injuries - without any apparent relation to their gait or other characteristics I'd been analyzing. Perhaps it was just the tough conditions...but then, my thought is, aren't there worse conditions in the Iditarod when the team is under greater stress? Just some of my pondering as we started the 3rd leg...

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Eagle Cap Extreme 2016: Part 1

    Well, that was a short season! I really seem to run in the rain, on the 4-wheeler a lot more than on the sled...I remember the winter's not so long ago when I was on the sled until March. Now it's gone by the time we get home from Race to the Sky.
    But, fortunately, I get to re-live the season here with ya'll! So without further ado, here's the first installment of the Eagle Cap Extreme 2016...

    This year I had 16 dogs in training which gave me the luxury of having some choice in the dogs I ran and a larger buffer available for giving young or injured dogs time off. We needed it...trail conditions were challenging, to say the least. At first our sled runs were extremely slow - like 5mph - as we broke trail out...and back...since it continued to snow and snow. It was a great experience for the puppies (the "true" yearlings: Falcon, Eagle, Owl and Bea) to work hard but the lack of base caused small injuries to arise (wrists, sore shoulders/hips). Once the groomer came, though, it didn't get better. In one week we had everything from slush to breaking through more fresh snow to a hard and fast trail to punchy, slow slogs in the rain.
    With such conditions, I doubted Eagle Cap would be the hard and fast trail it's been for the past years and I figured I'd take extra young dogs to see what stuff they were made of. I also took two of the puppies - Falcon and Bea - who had not had such strong training runs as the other two but had improved tremendously with the 100 mile camping trip (for pictures of our camping and training be sure to check out our facebook page).
    So the team would be a nice mix: Sweetwater, Belle, Rowdy, Summer, Razz and Frost - who'd finished before - and Jingle, Saxon, Achilles, Odysseus, Bea and Falcon. I was nervous to be leaving my main leaders, Legolas and Urchin behind but there are moments when you've got to let the younger dogs step up and grow into their positions.
    Going to Joseph, Oregon, is like going on vacation - everyone makes you feel so comfortable and this year we shared a cabin with Jessie Royer and Alea Robinson. It was nice to relax and talk dogs with Jessie a bit...especially to hear about her free-dropping of the dogs.
    Of course, at the vet check, it's like a reunion - getting to see folks you've not seen in a year and, of course, spending time educating the kids who came out to see the sled dogs! But the highlight this year was finally getting to meet a mushing friend from Wisconsin - Carlleen. We've messaged back and forth a bit over the years and she was racing the 32 mile pot race, so I finally got to meet her!

    The race started mid-day on Thursday and I had no idea who I would put in lead until I started hooking up dogs. You know how sometimes inspiration just comes to you? Well, I won't say it was inspiration but I just couldn't decide who to put together because I wanted to let new, young dogs lead out of the excitement of the start. I ended up with Bella and Achilles - who had never run lead together and Achilles had never been in a race before.
    For an instant, when they said "Go" I thought the dogs wouldn't go past the crowd (Bella can be shy at the worst times!) but they took off and led nicely...until it came time to pass. Bella is afraid of other teams and Achilles, who's a hard-headed dog when he knows what to do, had never seen another dog team before. When other's passed us we were fine, but passing Jennifer was rather ugly.

    One of the things I worked on this leg was to relax, even though I was running back and forth with other teams. I like to be out there alone with the team and just go along but when you have other teams who move differently up and down the mountains there's courtesy involved...fortunately most distance team drivers are very laid back about passing and running together. Despite my leader's lack of experience, I don't think we caused any issues and they settled into a nice pace over the soft trail. The snow caused us to lose most of the booties, which made for an easy camp at Ollokot when I took off a total of 4 booties!

   A triumph of the first leg was that the dogs ate their first snack (which they never eat) and still devoured their first meal (like they always do). All of them, including the puppies, lay right down to sleep without any barking or chewing. It's one of the times I feel really proud of my dogs - when we come into the first checkpoint where there's a lot of commotion, typically, and they just go to sleep like they've been trained...without a fuss. It's a good thing they rested, because I'd decided to run the first half of the race like we'd done in training...100 miles with 1 and 1/2 hour rest.